Joseph Emin: notes and sources

Joseph Emin (1726-1809) was born in Hamadan, Persia, in an Armenian family that, according to his memoirs, were uprooted from Armenia, a few generations before Joseph’s birth, by one of Shah Abbas’s campaigns. When he was a child of five, his family moved to Baghdad (after the siege of Hamadan by Turkish forces), and some time later to Bengal. His father was a merchant. Emin’s mother, younger brother and great-grandfather all died in Bengal. His father wanted him to enter the business with him, but Joseph had dreams of liberating Armenia from Persian and Ottoman yokes, so, against his father’s wishes, he left Bengal on board an English ship, working the deck for his passage, and landed in England where he wanted to learn combat and military skills and sciences in order to organize an army in Armenia.

I first learned about him through a passing mention by M. Tavakoli-Targhi in Refashioning Iran. I immediately decided that I had to include him in this project. He is different from many other travelers not just in terms of his Armenian ethnicity (subsumed under the term Persianate in some accounts, which made me very angry), but because of the purpose of his journey. He is amongst the first in a long line of freedom fighters who go from the East to the West looking for help from the “excellent nations of Europe particularly England” in their struggle to win their people’s freedom and self-determination. He is also distinguished because his memoirs was written in English by himself and has the distinction of having been edited by non other than Sir William Jones, the famous orientalist who apparently taught Persian grammar to Persians.

Racist and orientalist views abound in Emin’s writing. He is disturbingly anti-Semitic and holds contempt for Indians, Persians, Turks and Arabs. He seems so enamoured with the “great English nation” that he can’t be critical of the English even when they insult and belittle him. That said, his account of his early years in England is quite illuminating in terms of the conditions of life in England both for the poor English and for a poor immigrant. In some passages his experience has an uncanny resemblance to contemporary experience of refugees from the south. For this project, I am primarily focusing on these sections of his memoirs. His meticulous tracking of his expenses in his first few years actually reminded me of my own experience of counting pennies and living on air as much as possible when I first arrived here as a refugee.

I have only found one secondary source in English that discusses Emin’s memoirs in some detail. Interestingly, in this one he is categorized as an Indian. In one or two other sources he is mentioned in passing only. I will use excerpts from his memoirs as it is available on Archive.Org, but I have been reading and am guided by a print version listed below. I do compare the two texts as I go.

Ammended 15 May 2014: Just found two other English sources, both by the Sebouh Aslanian, that look at Emin’s memoirs. The writer being Armenian himself, he lists Joseph as an Armenian liberationist. Aslanian complains that Emin’s memoirs has mostly been viewed within the context of Armenian liberation history. In “A Reader Responds to…”, Aslanian revists Emin’s writing for the picture it gives of his life as an immigrant, as well as how his book was read and circulated upon its publication.

Aslanian, Sebouh. “Trade Diaspora versus Colonial State: Armenian Merchants, the English East India Company, and the High Court of Admiralty in London, 1748-1752.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, V. 13 (1), 11/2003, p. 37-100

Aslanian, Sebouh. “A Reader Responds to Joseph Emin’s Life and Adventures: Notes towards a History of Reading in Late Eighteenth Century Madras.” Handes Amsorya (Vienna/Yerevan, 2012), 363-418.

Emin, Joseph. Life and Adventures of Joseph Emin, An Armenian, Written in English by Himself. Retrieved from Archive.Org 10/02/2014.

Emin, Joseph. Life and Adventures of Joseph Emin, An Armenian, Written in English by Himself. Amy Apcar, ed. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1918.

Narain, Mona. “Eighteenth‐Century Indians’ Travel Narratives and Cross‐Cultural Encounters with the West.” Literature Compass, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp. 151 – 165

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  1. […] finally started with Joseph Emin on Wednesday and by the end of the week I was finished with his passage. In deciding to focus only […]